Passionate Compassion

Sermon for Lent 2 C on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13:31-35 for February 24, 2013

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

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After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates….”

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

Passionate Compassion

Most people around the world want to know what God is like.  Everyone is born into a particular culture, and every culture we know of has a way of understanding God, or, more often, all of the gods.  The way we humans understand things is through stories.  Our story of God is quite different from most other god-stories.  The differences are enormous.  Noticing them helps us understand our own story.

This morning, we are going to start a bit theoretically, but I promise it’s going to get really personal.  We all want to understand God; what God is like; what God wants from us.  The two texts we read are amazing and important on exactly this topic.

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But let’s start this way:  Most of the god-stories that various cultures tell are not set in any particular time.  The gods live up in the heavens, or down under the earth in the realm of the dead, but not in real-earth time.  Zeus is up there on Mt. Olympus, cavorting around, fathering other gods and goddesses, having conflicts, feasting.  The gods on Olympus all live in mythical time, with no beginning or end.

Our God-Story

Our story is quite different.  It begins with the creation of the world complete with a sun and moon to mark time into days and nights, together with stars to mark annual seasons.  Our story begins with a man and woman in perfect garden, at peace with all of nature, at peace with each other and at peace with God who they know and speak with in the time of the evening breeze.

So, what is God like?  Lets compare stories. The gods in most stories I’m aware of have super-powers.  They control nature.  Some gods get to throw around thunderbolts, others control the waves of the sea.  They bring fertility to crops and herds – that is, they may decide to bring fertility; it is in their power – if they are kept happy by the humans who serve them.

But it may go the other way just as easily.  The gods can bring drought and famine if they wish.   They can be petty, vengeful, spiteful, and malicious – or loving and kind.   You never really know.

So, the gods are like humans, only very big and very powerful.  It’s important to get them to like you so that you will be treated kindly by them.

But they don’t much care about your life apart from that.  It’s not really their concern how you live, if you are good or bad, if you beat your wife or exploit your workers, keep or break your promises.   In other words, morality – how we treat each other – was not their concern.

Consequences + Caring

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By enormous and significant contrast, our story starts out from the very beginning with a God who not only relates to the humans he made in his image, he is also quite concerned about their behavior.  He gives them a command and expects them to obey.  They do not, of course, since the quintessential human response to a command has always been “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do!”  They reach up, grab the forbidden fruit, and take a big bite.  God cares; there are consequences.

Our story includes lots of accounts of people behaving badly, causing pain and suffering to each other, right from the start.  Cain is jealous of his brother Able, and kills him.  God cares.  There are consequences.

But the consequences are not brutally disproportionate, and in fact,  they are mixed with God’s grief, and, amazingly, God’s continued caring.  Adam and Eve have to leave the garden, but not in naked shame; God clothes them.  It’s an act of post-punishment care.  Cain is banished, but yet God gives him a mark to keep him from being murdered; another post-punishment act of care.

All throughout our story – the bible’s story of God – we see repeatedly that God is concerned for our moral behavior – how we treat each other – and cares deeply about us.  If there is one huge, profoundly significant way in which our story differs from others it is that God cares.

When God’s people, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, wind up in Egypt as slaves they cry out to God, and God hears their cries; God cares, and God responds.  Liberation from oppression is Israel’s number one God-story.

How did they know that God would care about their oppression and suffering?  Because they knew the amazing God-story that we read from Genesis 15.

God and the Loyalty Oath

God had called Abraham to leave his home country in Mesopotamia to go to a land God promised to give to him.   God promised him descendants – numerous as the stars in the sky.  And God promised that through these descendants he would finally work out his plan to bless all the families of the earth.  What a commission!  What a calling!  But it had to start, in those uber-patriarchal days, with a male child.   Abraham and Sarah were childless.

So God reassures Abraham – look at the stars; count them if you can.  That is how many descendants you will have.  But how can childless Abraham believe it?

In those days, treaties between rulers were enacted in solemn covenant-making ceremonies.  Most often the treaty was between the conquering ruler and the one he conquered.  The treaty included a solemn loyalty oath.

Here’s how it went.  Animals were slaughtered and cut in half.  The carcasses were laid out in two parallel rows, forming an aisle between them.  The conquered ruler would swear loyalty by walking between the pieces of the slain animals.

“Cross my heart, hope to die”

By walking between the pieces he was, in effect, taking on an oath of self-cursing.  He was saying, may the same thing happen to me as happened to these animals if I am ever disloyal to my conqueror.  It was like the way children say, “cross my heart, hope to die; stick a needle in my eye.”

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So what did we read?  God puts Abraham into a deep, dark, mystical sleep.  God appears to Abraham in a vision and instructs him to prepare the covenant ceremony.  Abraham makes the aisle out of the slain animal victims.  There is no doubt that he is thinking: “Okay, I shall walk between the pieces and swear my loyalty to the God who promised descendants to me, and let him kill me if I am ever disloyal.”

But that is precisely not what happens.  In that deep, numinous vision, Abraham watches as the flaming, smoking symbols of God make that solemn journey between the victims.  It is almost too much for human words.  God has just cursed himself, lest he ever be disloyal to Abraham!

What is God like?  Just about as opposite to Zeus as could be.  We could sum up in one word what God is like: God cares!  This is the God the descendants of Abraham can cry out to when they become slaves in Egypt; the God who cares!

Jesus’ Response to Threats

Now let us fast forward many years to our second story.  It is the time of Jesus.  Rome is now in control, and again the people feel like slaves.  Many of them are hoping for a revolution.  Sharpen the swords; prepare for blood.

But the people have been down this road before.  Now they can look back over their history and tell a long story.  Most of it, frankly, has been a tragic one.  They have been an independent nation; they have had a king, even a dynasty.  That did not work out so well for them.

Not only has it not worked out well for them, it has not helped anybody else, either.  There has never been any sense in which “all the families of the earth” have been blessed or  have gotten anything positive out of deal, as Abraham was promised would happen.  There’s a problem.

Jesus is deeply aware that the essential problem is not Rome.  The essential problem, the real enemy to fight is the same one that showed up in the Garden of Eden.  It is the darkness in the human heart that proclaims, “Nobody is going to tell me what to do!”  God may say, “Do justice, love mercy, look after the widow, the orphan and the alien.”  But we humans say, “Nobody tells us what to do.”

So it is what it is; a world of people causing pain and suffering to other people.  You would think that if this were the assessment, that the darkness in human hearts was pervasive, that God’s response would be anger, wrath and judgment.

But that is not what the God who has passed between the pieces is like.  The God who has cursed himself lest he be unfaithful to his promise to bless all the families of the earth is the God that Jesus shows us.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem”

So, even after Jesus hears oblique death threats, even after his repeated proclamations of the Kingdom of God have been rebuffed, what is the emotion that Jesus displays?  Vengeance?  Bitterness?  No!  It is caring!  You can hear the pain in Jesus’ voice as he looks at his capital city where so much has happened since the time of David and Solomon to the current days of king Herod, saying:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

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Picturing the way a mother bird gathers her chicks under her wings for protection from storms, Jesus looks at a nation heading for disaster and says, I care!  I still care.  Even after everything, I care!

I care, because the path you are on will only lead to more pain and suffering.  I care because God cares.  This is passionate compassion.  This is the heart of the God who passed between the pieces.

God Cares –We Care

This is exactly how God is; this is the way God looks at us; with caring, with love.  Yes with sadness over the times we say “nobody tells me what to do” like four-year olds, as we hurt ourselves and each other, but always hearing our pain-cries, and always caring.  What are you going through now?   God cares!  What are your sources of pain, or fear, or disappointment?  God cares!

This is our enormous comfort and hope, and our agenda.  God calls all of us to take up his care for the world and the people in it and to be his agents of caring.  Our mission, our mandate is to be authentic followers of Jesus.  That means that we are people of passionate compassion.

When we hear about people in need; we care, and we respond.  When we know that there are children who cannot keep up in school, we care, and we respond as tutors.  When we are aware that there are families who need food, we care and we respond with the Christian Service Center.

When we know that there are people falling through the cracks because of mental health issues, we care and we respond in every way we can.   When we hear about people who have felt excluded or left out of the conversation, we care and we reach out to them without pre-conditions.   We do what Jesus did; we do what God does: we care.

We have been loved and cared for by a God who passed through the covenant pieces for us.  We know God through Jesus who spreads his arms in a huge embrace of us, in all our complexity and ambiguity, with love and healing.  And we  in turn spread out our hen-like wings as far as they will go, to gather all the chicks that need a safe, caring place.

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